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I was trying to make an elevator in single player mode but it looks like it requires commands and the chat is not available in single player.

What's the best way to go?

I've tried the waterfall / boat elevator but the boat stays at the bottom of the waterfall (the way it should x)

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Boat elevators were nerfed in the 1.6 update. It would help if you know what server mods are being used to create elevators in the SMP games you're playing. – fredley Jun 19 '11 at 12:05
Elevators may be possible in 1.7 with stacked pistons, but they would have a huge vertical footprint. – SevenSidedDie Jun 19 '11 at 17:28
concerning commands, there's the single player commands mod – Zommuter Jun 20 '11 at 4:53
up vote 7 down vote accepted

Since water-related elevators no longer work after 1.6, the best way to do this is to use a minecart elevator:

Minecarts teleport you into them as long as you're relatively close when click on them, so you can use minecarts stacked one on top of another to click your way up to freedom.

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I somewhat dread the day when this and boat teleporting are "fixed", as I'd rather be able to get around faster in a legit manner than the max speed of a minecart. – Nick T Jun 19 '11 at 19:29
Boat elevators are only partially broken. If you use solid source blocks all the way up they work. They are a tad slower though. – Michael Jun 20 '11 at 13:14
Nice. Thanks a lot :) – Nicolas de Fontenay Jun 22 '11 at 14:19

Or you could make a piston elevator. I just finished mine, and it's still small (7 pistons), but it works.

Faster version (sea level to height limit in 12.8 seconds):

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Ingenious, but that looks slower than just using ladders. A friend tipped me off to a faster version: I added it to your answer. – user3389 Jul 22 '11 at 18:34
@Mark Trapp, that's an amazing elevator. – Cyclops Jul 23 '11 at 19:50

A non-mod, and only slightly hacky way of travelling up/down fast is with boat/minecart elevators, of which there are plenty of video tutorials.

Mod-wise the only thing I can find is Ethereal's Elevator Mod, but it hasn't been updated for a while.

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He just said boats don't work anymore... – BlueRaja - Danny Pflughoeft Jun 19 '11 at 16:23
It is still possible, just much trickier, to make a boat elevator. – Shinrai Jun 19 '11 at 17:00

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